SUNDANCE

Much Ado About Nothing:Interview with Chilean Filmmaker Alejandro Fernández Almendras

One of the most challenging films that premiered in the World Cinema Competition at Sundance this year was Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ Much Ado About Nothing, (Spanish title: Aquí no ha pasado nada), the second in a trilogy on justice (or the lack of) in present-day Chile.

Much Ado About Nothing is also screening as part of the PANORAMA section at the upcoming BERLINALE 2016.

The following interview with Alejandro Fernández Almendras was taken in January 2016 during SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. 

Dana Knight: Much Ado About Nothing is a film that is not very dissimilar, in its theme and general focus, to your previous film, To Kill A Man, that was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance two years ago. You obviously feel very strongly about the theme of justice in Chile.

Alejandro Fernández Almendras: That’s true. In the way that To Kill A Man dealt with justice for the working class, this one deals with the theme of justice for the rich. I wanted to make this film because what happened in the real case that inspired the movie was a clear case of abuse of the law and the justice system, of the privilege that money gives certain people. Much Ado About Nothing is the second part of a trilogy about justice. The third part will deal with justice for the big corporations. So if this deals with personal justice, the third film will move into the social sphere, the focus won’t be on the individual but on the corporations and the community.

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Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras

Knight: And do you think, anticipating slightly, that the conclusion to all these films will be that there is no justice because “there is no truth”. This is a striking line from Much Ado About Nothing…

Almendras: Exactly. The third film is not inspired by true events but is pretty much what I imagine, what I know is happening in the corporate world. The question I ask myself if: when you think you are fighting for something, what are you really fighting for?And how we are led to believe in things like the environment, the rights of indigenous communities, and how behind that speech and well intentions are more powerful interests at play. The whole picture this paints is not different from what any person would conclude after reading the news and living in the world. We are living in a society, in a system that is really unfair, that creates a good life for a few who achieve those levels where they know they are going to be safe in terms of social security, in terms of justice, in terms of access to education. The system is wrong and many people around the world think that. That is what want to tell in a way that is cinematic, that makes you feel frustration at what you see on screen. It is very important for me to put the viewer in that uncomfortable position and realising that things are not right.

Knight: Social injustice is widespread in the world, it’s not specific to Chile but would you say it is much worse in Chile than anywhere else?

Almendras: In Chile you have a great disparity in social status, income, that leads to differences in how people are treated. Because you have the worst case of inequality in terms of how much money the rich people make compared to poor people. In Chile we have a big debate about market loss, the fact that you can defraud a public company, send it to bankruptcy, steal millions and millions of dollars from the public funds and the punishment for that is like a slap on the wrist, probably a very small fine, nothing of serious importance. These losses were made during the time of Pinochet or made by the same people who were ruling the country at that time and who are now involved in big economic corporations. Every week we have a new case, the three major pharmacy chains control 90% of the market and they set the prices for 10 years, for the drugs that people need every month. And they make hundred of millions of dollars and no one ended up in jail. So yes, I think inequality in Chile is much worse than in other countries.

Knight: Going back to the film, while the events are based on a real life case, I assume the characters are fictionalised. How did you go about constructing Vicente and the other characters?

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Almendras: I have these very strong opinions about what things are and the direction they should go into. But despite that I know that I’m making films and I’m not running for a political office. So the important thing is to create scenarios that are involving enough for you to feel and understand the other side, the side you know is going to be wrong from the very beginning.  I did the same with  To Kill A Man, that guy was killing for revenge. You know he is doing a wrong thing but I wanted to understand why he was doing that. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing, I did the same thing, I created this character of Vicente as someone who has been put in a situation where he is forced by circumstances to admit something that is detrimental to him but beneficial for the bad people. So I started with that point of view and then I said I’m going to construct a character that is like a young kid today. A kid that transcends class. And you see that a lot in an upper class kid, but also in a middle class kid or even lower class: the way they relate to each other, the way they construct their relationships, the way they go about friendship and love and companionship and family. I think it’s the same everywhere you look: higher class or lower class, it’s the same. Everything has to be immediate, everything has to be clear and simple. Which is a very egotistic, selfish way of living, the instant gratification and how something is going to be useful and good for me. And not caring for anyone else. And morally these types of characters are very vulnerable to manipulation. Because if they don’t care about anyone, friends, family, etc, they will care even less for the rest of the population or for the society.

Knight: I know that in writing this script you collaborated with a lawyer, how did that go?

Almendras: I did, yes. Jerónimo (Rodríguez) is a friend, we’ve known each other for 15 years, we worked together on almost all my films, he helped me edit one and write another. And I helped him in his own endeavours of making films. He is a lawyer, he never practiced law but he knows a lot about the legal system and the thinking of a lawyer. Then we consulted with a lot of people, public defenders, prosecutors, to create a plausible, realistic, accurate story. At today’s screening there a few lawyers who came to see the film and they commented on how they face that kind of thing almost daily. One of them was a criminal prosecutor and he was saying he was hoping for the kid to not surrender, to tell the truth and what happened. But she also saw it was inevitable for the surrender to happen. […] It took us a long time to find a plausible case and decide how we’re going to cast all the parts, the script is very accurate in legal terms.…

Knight: Did the main actors contribute ideas to the creation of their characters too?Agustín Silva is a young rising star in Chilean cinema, how did you know he was the right one for the role?

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Chilean actor Agustin Silva – center

Almendras: I met Agustín a month before the shooting, we had a few drinks and I knew right away. I had the experience of being a middle class kid going to a very high class school with a scholarship. So I was relating to those kinds of people in my teenage years, I know that world but I never felt part of it, I’ve always been kind of observing that. So I have the ear for the right accent, the right way to relate. It is very common in Chile to ask people what is your last name, what high school you went to, because that places you in a certain context. So when I met Agustin, I think the first question we asked each other is what high school we went to! So I immediately thought he was the kind of person I was looking for. And I pushed him to be a little more like that, not to reflect too much about the character but to let the character exist.

Knight: How about the other kids in the cast?

Almendras: The same thing, basically. Most of them are coming from rich families, they live in that world.

Knight: So they are non-actors?

Almendras: No, actually they are all professional actors, fresh out of school, most of them.

Knight: Were they troubled at all by the way you’re representing their world?

Almendras: No, because in a way it is a fair portrait. At the end of the day, because of what they do and the role they play, you’re probably judging them but the movie is not judging them. But at the beginning they are just having fun, and I think we have all been in that situation. We’ve all been partying late and drinking, dancing, doing drugs or whatever. So the movie celebrates their youth until something happens. Which changes the narrative of the film into something more serious and objective.

Knight: You’re saying the movie celebrates their youth but the opening sequence is a bit disturbing: the kids are watching a video of someone who had an accident and they are kind of laughing it off, as if it’s something amusing.

Almendras: Yes, I agree, they are watching the screen and saying things like, “What do you care, nothing really happened to him”. But they are like that, they watch videos on Youtube and the whole film is full of online interaction and watching things on the internet.

Knight: There’s a lot of social media inserted into this film.

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Almendras: Exactly.  At the beginning they are watching a viral video and at the end of the film we see a lot of tweets coming up on the screen. And many of those tweets came from the real case that inspired the movie, it’s the same things that people wrote on social media about the case, like “let’s kill this guy”, “let’s raise enough money to kill him”, “let’s dump him somewhere”. Because Twitter and all social media are very violent. Very small worlds but very violent. Also after they are having sex they are watching a porn video, another viral video. And there’s a lot of texting. So there’s a lot of this new different layer of communication that I wanted to put in the film, to add a new layer to the narrative. Usually when texting occurs in a film, they are using it instead of a phone call. People today use a text message as a substitute for a phone call, it’s really funny. I’m wondering why we prefer to text instead of talk. It’s probably because texting creates all this parallel universe so instead of this person being 5 min with you, they are all day with you. So you got the feeling that you’re building relationships with people who seem to be there but they are not. Which is different from phoning someone. So I wanted to have this in the film to create this new narrative layer, to comment on things you see in the film, to talk about people you see in the film.

Knight: I was struck by your decision to insert the content of these text messages directly on the screen. You’re basically writing on the screen.

Almendras: Yes, I decided to go that way because it’s a new form of communication that is still not well integrated into films. It’s so different than actual, physical communication. I remember in the late 90s and early 2000 when the cell phones were starting to appear, it took movies at least 10 years to stop showing pay phones.

Knight: That’s because pay phones are so much more cinematic!

Almendras: Maybe! So most characters from movies of that period would still go to a pay phone and call someone. But narratively you would think: why didn’t that character call that person from a cell phone? And I think some filmmakers deliberately set the action of the film 10 years into the past only to avoid dealing with a cell phone! It was so new to be able to communicate with someone from anywhere. For us now it’s the same with texting. But the way I used texting in the film is different, I wanted these texts to tell part of the story and talk about something you have not seen on  the screen. I don’t know how many of my friends said to me, “this guy or this girl broke up with me over whatsapp!” or “he sent me a text saying that it’s over”. It’s so dry to send a text message to say something that is emotionally important for the other person. This type of communication is so different from what it used to be! And this is what I wanted to emphasise in the film.

Knight: I actually enjoyed seeing all these messages silently displayed on the screen, it was as if you were able to read the characters’ minds.

Almendras:  Exactly. But this changes a lot of things from a practical filmmaking point of view. Instead of having someone say “I miss you, I love you” in a scene, you have that message displayed on the screen. And I’m always curious what people are talking about in all those texts! There was this case once in the Parliament in Chile, this congressman was texting during a hearing in the Congress, he was having three separate sex conversations with three different guys. So you see this Congressman working away in the Congress, but what is going on in reality is something entirely different! So this is a medium I would like to explore more because it speaks volumes about the character, the way the character relates to other people and to the world.

Knight: Talking about the internet and social media, there is also a documentary by Werner Herzog on this topic in Sundance 2016. In an interview I recently did in Havana with NYC filmmaker Sam Pressman who knows him well, Herzog was quoted as saying: “This table is a revolutionary object because we can sit around it and have a conversation but Twitter is not!”. A very contentious, controversial statement,  just as we like them!

Almendras: (laughing) Well, I agree! Also Twitter is such a sterile form of communication, such a bad tool of communication. We created language but on Twitter we’re limited to using 140 characters. This will always end up with people fighting or misunderstanding each other. Because 140 characters is no way you can make yourself understood. And what is also disturbing is that we are using a means of communication created by people who were unable to communicate in the real world. We are using systems created by, many of them, sociopaths. Zuckerberg created a tool to judge women’s hotness in a dorm in a university, which is probably the worst environment. And we’re using the same tool to communicate with friends?Obviously we are doing something wrong!So I’m very critical of that, I don’t think it’s healthy to relate to people in this way, that’s why I used it a lot in the film.

Knight: The title of the film in Spanish translates into “Nothing happened here” but the English title is Much Ado About Nothing. Why was it important to find an equivalent expression for the English title instead of a literal translation?

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Almendras: Yes, the Chilean title means “Nothing really happened here” and we use it when you have a big mess and then you kind of fix it a little bit and then you say that nothing actually happened. And we have a similar expression to Much Ado About Nothing in Spanish, the literal meaning is: “all this noise cracking nuts but there is nothing inside”. In other words, all this fuss around something that is nothing in the end. Which is what happened in Chile with the legal case the film is based on: there was a lot of “noise”, a lot of tweeting, a lot of press and at the end all the kids were freed, except this person that no one cares about. So that’s why we decided to go with that title.

Knight: Basically you have a free but powerless press in Chile!

Almendras: Exactly, the press represents the same powers and what happens is this weird thing where they condemn things publicly but there is no real accountability for what they are doing.  A lot of noise and nothing really happens as a result of that.

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THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER – MORE PARANOID, MORE FASCINATING THAN A BOND THRILLER!

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The real life protagonist of The Russian Woodpecker, Chad Gracia’s  astonishing documentary feature, the winner of World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2015, is the most fascinating ideas man you can imagine.

His name is Fedor Alexandrovich and he is an Ukrainian artist with a traumatic past: his ancestors were murdered by the Soviets, sent to gulags or forced to renounce their family, and he was only four years old in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened, an event that forced him to leave his home due to the toxic effects of irradiation. Now 33, he is a “radioactive man” with strontium in his bones and a singular obsession with the earth-changing catastrophe – why did it actually happen?

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Fedor Alexandrovich

Chad met Fedor on the set of a play he was putting on in Kiev where Fedor worked as a set designer. Fedor kept whispering to Chad about the “Russian woodpecker,” a giant, mysterious antenna nicknamed such for the strange, constant clicking radio frequencies that it emitted during the Cold War and which had been terrorising the radio frequencies in Europe and America during that time, so much so that many Americans believed it to be a Soviet mind-control device.

For Fedor, this strange device that the Soviets built only 2 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear station, represented a very deep and dark mystery: what was its real use and was there more to the Chernobyl story than the Soviet government let on? Is it possible that there might have been a criminal mind behind the Chernobyl catastrophe that the world doesn’t know about? As incredible as this may sound, is it possible that Chernobyl was blown up on purpose??

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The “Russian Woodpecker”

These were questions without answers and just another “conspiracy theory” until the day Fedor decided to confront the Russian Woodpecker that is now rotting away in an off-limits military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

In one of the most astonishing visual sequences of the film, Fedor is sailing naked across a radioactive sea on a raft of mirrors which he himself constructed following a dream he had about the mysterious device.

Steeped in a climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police threatening Fedor into closing his investigation and all sorts of dangers lurking at every step of the way, Chad Gracia’s documentary is more fascinating than a Bond thriller!

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Fedor Alexandrovich, director Chad Gracia and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov

Dana Knight: The Russian Woodpecker is a most compelling story. I loved the way the pieces of the puzzle were put together by Fedor’s inquisitive mind and the way you conducted the investigation that followed. What wasn’t perfectly clear to me is this: did Fedor form his theory about the Chernobyl disaster not really being an accident before you started shooting or is this incredible discovery a result of the film?

Chad Gracia: No, our main interest was in the antenna, our plan was to debunk the conspiracy theory that the antenna was a mind control device. He just had some sort of artistic fascination with this object, he described it to me many times but he spoke of it in terms of some sort of aesthetic urgency that he had about witnessing it, feeling it, approaching it. Fedor is very sensitive, he sort of follows his instincts, he has his own creative antenna. But I don’t think he had any rational idea for why he has to go there, he was just drawn to it.

Knight: In a sense, it would have been even more astonishing if Fedor put all the pieces of the puzzle together before you embarked on the investigation.

Gracia: Yes but as you see in the film, it only came about because people were very nervous when asked about the antenna. That made him suspicious. And Fedor says that he could never believe such a thing was possible, but that was actually the direction that his research took him. We came about it in a way naively, we really did not expect to find what we found. It was supposed to be a very short film about this antenna.

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Knight: I know, but even if he had the idea to begin with, he would have probably only gradually disclosed his thoughts to you, because to hit you with all these crazy ideas from the start, it would have been too much for you to take on, I guess.

Gracia: Well, you would have to ask Fedor, he certainly is a very mysterious guy! But in my opinion it started more as just an investigation: there’s this strange object, this enormous antenna that no one knows much about, it’s standing next to Chernobyl, it’s dying to be filmed, it’s dying to be explored, it’s ready to be questioned. That’s what we did, without any assumptions at all when we started.

Knight: How did you get access to those Russian former high officials? That must have been difficult.

Gracia: Well, when we first reached out to them we didn’t say anything about me, an American, being involved, I would just show up. And after many months of getting nowhere, we realised that my showing up made them not really want to speak with us. That was a step in the wrong direction. So at that point we got a special apartment with a kind of a cubby where I could hide, so they never knew there was an American director involved. I used to Skype to send questions to the team and clarifications during the interview. The question as to why they agreed to meet, I think originally when our Ukrainian contact called them, she said, “Look, they want to talk about your life”. These guys used to be at the top of the Soviet pyramid, they were heroes of their day and now they are all forgotten, living on tiny pensions, in crumbling apartments and no one cares about them. So they have someone coming to talk about their youth and about their technological achievements which were quite significant. This antenna, we don’t have time to get into it in the film, but it spurred a lot of research into super computers in Russia. Being able to assess the signal was incredibly difficult. So they were very proud of what they achieved and they wanted to talk about it but not with an American.

Knight: I found that very funny, the way they became immediately suspicious when the word “American” was pronounced. They are basically still caught in the past.

Gracia: I was surprised too, I thought the Cold War was ancient history, I really did not expect these guys to still be living in that world. But Fedor was the one who kept telling me, “No, Chad, you don’t understand, the Cold War is still alive, the Soviet ghosts are still haunting Ukraine, they are everywhere”. I thought he was crazy. He was also the first one to say that the Soviet Union is coming back, there’s going to be war. And he said this to everyone who was listening but everyone thought he was crazy. This was months before the annexation of Crimea, or the events in Eastern Ukraine. Again Fedor is kind of an antenna, he’s like all great artists, he’s very sensitive to things before the rest of us.

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Knight: The timing of your documentary was perfect in a way: the progression of the documentary found resonance in the Revolution that was happening around you.  And this climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police that started interfering with your project, and your own paranoia about the other team members filming a parallel film!

Chad: I know, it’s strange. It’s obviously unrelated that the Revolution broke out. And when I walked into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and when I got into the force-field of this antenna, my life became very surreal. And you’re right, the climate of paranoia engulfed us, as it eventually engulfed the whole city and the whole country. But that’s just a quirk of history and a sad fate for Ukraine, but it made our story so much more dramatic and timely than we expected it to be.

Knight: The moment the Secret Police interfered with your project was a key turning point in the film, you almost lost the project as Fedor wanted out. How did you get over that obstacle?

Gracia: Well, Fedor left and we had no film and I went back, I left the country trying to figure out how to salvage my project. And it was only when the Revolution kicked off that Fedor felt he had a patriotic duty to come back. This was three months later. But he had certain requirements. He said that he wanted to give the Secret Police final cut, final approval of the film, he told them that he would try to convince me of that. So we kind of agreed on that but within a week the Pro-Russian government fell and then luckily we never had to do that. Also we had to put the disclaimer, by way of a contract, Fedor was pressured to put this disclaimer in front of the film, that the film is not intended to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Russia.  I guess Fedor also felt that having his theory out in the world would make him safer than if he was the only one who had the theory. So he felt that, paradoxically, by publicising the theory he was safer. 

Knight: That’s actually the next question I wanted to ask: is Fedor safe now in Ukraine, is it safe for him to be there?

Gracia: In today’s situation, nobody knows who is safe and who is not safe in Ukraine. But when people ask Fedor if he feels he’s personally at risk, he answers: “Look, it’s not just me, it’s all of us. No one is safe as long as there’s such a madman at the helm of a nuclear armed country, who wants to bring back the Great Empire”. That’s what Fedor says. I think he’s safe, we hope he’s safe. We’ve been invited to Moscow to screen the film at a documentary film festival there. Fedor is terrified but I think I’ll go.

Knight: You’re not terrified?

Gracia: Look, I’m an American. As you probably know, an Ukrainian film director was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison following a mock trial. So Fedor is not entirely crazy to be nervous. But my hope is that the government there has much bigger worries than some documentary about some cover-up that happened 30 years ago.

Knight: Fedor is an amazing, fascinating character. Going back to how this project started, I understand that you two met on the set of a play that you were working on in Kiev.

Gracia: Exactly. And I immediately knew he was a special character, like out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Fedor writing on mirror

Knight: What is also amazing is that you don’t come from a film background, you did theatre, this is your very first venture into filmmaking.

Gracia: Yes. But the film is quite theatrical in some ways, you can definitely feel the influence. But my experience in theatre was also as a dramaturge, dealing with story-structure, so that helped me a lot. But it’s true, all of us were first time filmmakers. Our cinematographer ARTEM RYZHYKOV  worked on something else before but this was his first major picture. He’s a genius.

Knight: He must be, the cinematography is incredible. The whole film is incredible.

Gracia: Yes, it was a magical, miraculous experience. The whole project, from concept, to how we got it financed, to our opening in New York on Friday and seeing people really enjoy it. People find it fascinating and they love it. That’s the best part about it.

Knight: You also mentioned you had a lot of footage. How did things go in the editing room, what did you decide to leave out and why? The film is very well put together, it is seamless.

Gracia: The editing was extremely complicated. We had five separate films that were apparently unrelated: Fedor’s dream, which was a long journey across Ukraine, we had the Chernobyl disaster, we had the technology of the radar, we had the conspiracy theory and we had the Revolution that was happening in Ukraine. And I was nearly at the end of my wits trying to figure out how to bring these stories together. And the moment when it all became clear for me is when I realised it’s really only one story: it’s the story of Fedor’s soul. The story of Fedor’s psychological journey. From the 4-year old irradiated child to the man who eventually stands up to the Soviet Union. At that point I decided to cut everything else, except for that which supported his journey. And it turned out that all of these things, the history of Ukraine, going back to what happened to his grandfather during the Revolution, even the antenna, all had elements that supported and even clarified and coloured Fedor’s journey. And I wanted the film to be very brisk, I wanted it to be short and feel like a thriller. I didn’t want it to be a 3-hour meditation. I wanted it to be an action thriller/detective story.

Knight: The fact that the film is short makes it even more impactful and it leaves you with a desire to see more. Maybe a sequel would be in order!

Gracia: Maybe, I’ll talk to Fedor about it. My thoughts were that I’d rather have people wanting more than being bored.

Knight: Where is the film on the festival circuit?

Gracia: We showed the film in Bucharest recently, I was there, it was lovely. And we’re going to Copenhagen next, the film is screening at CPH:DOX.

Knight: And do you have another film project you’re working on next?

Gracia: I have but it’s kind of top secret. In a couple of years I’ll hopefully have another film to chat to you about.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER is opening in theaters in Los Angeles on October 30.